General Meeting

ESA'S CLEAN SPACE INITIATIVE
Speaker: Mathilde Reumaux
Matilde Reumaux
Mathilde Reumaux
Location
CHÂTEAU MALOU - Allée Pierre Levie 2, 1200 Woluwe-Saint-Lambert

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Clean Space Initiative stands at the forefront of preserving both terrestrial and orbital environments while enhancing Europe's space sector's competitiveness. Committed to cleaning up space and minimizing the environmental impact of space activities, the initiative focuses on eco-designing space missions, managing end-of-life missions, and pioneering in-orbit servicing, including active debris removal. Through these efforts, ESA is taking global leadership in ensuring the safe and sustainable use of valuable orbits around Earth. To achieve this, ESA has set an ambitious Zero Debris goal: to eliminate debris generation entirely by 2030, securing a cleaner and safer space environment for future generations. You can already learn more about ESA’s Clean Space activities by reading their blog: blogs.esa.int/cleanspace. 

Mathilde Reumaux is EU Relations Coordinator at ESA, the European Space Agency. She is part of the ESA Brussels Office, which liaises with the EU institutions and the Brussels-based (space) stakeholders to support the cooperation between the EU and ESA. Before joining ESA, Mathilde gained more than 10 years of experience in EU research and innovation policies and programmes, and in EU and international collaboration for science.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

A Review
ESA’S CLEAN SPACE INITIATIVE
BY JOYCE KEDZUF MOSTINCKX

Our speaker, Mathilde Reumaux, is EU Programme coordinator at the European Space Agency's (ESA) Brussels Office having joined ESA in April of last year. Ms. Reumaux began her talk by sharing some information about ESA, stating that the idea of the agency began in the 1960s, and in 1975, two agencies which focused on European space research, and on the development of a launch system merged to become the intergovernmental agency that it is today. ESA has approximately 3.000 permanent staff; an  additional workforce of close to 3000 persons are provided by European industry to work on site as local contracted experts. ESA is not part of the EU but they do work together, with the EU proposing space programs and providing 20% of the budget, with the remainder coming from the member states. The annual budget of ESA is seven billion euros, (which equates to 14€/citizen in the EU). 

There are 22 member states represented in ESA, 19 of which are part of the EU (plus Norway, Switzerland, and Canada). The mandate of ESA is exploration and use of space for peaceful purposes only. ESA is active in all space fields, including those highlighted on the slide below:

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ESA explores the universe, sends humans to the International Space Station (ISS), observes the earth (forestry, land, ocean, climate change, etc.), enables satellite navigation (including via its collaboration with the EU on the Galileo programme). Its two main objectives are to explore the universe and improve life on earth. Some examples of ESA’s work are the Euclid Mission (exploring the “dark” universe a billion light years away) and the Huginn Mission (current exploration via the ISS). Six main sites make up ESA: Paris (headquarters), Rome, Noordwijk, Darmstadt and Cologne, and Madrid. 

After this introduction to ESA, Ms. Reumaux went on to speak about the sources of space debris (such as dead satellites, rocket pieces, debris due to collision of satellites, or, more rarely, lost objects such as astronaut gloves and tools) and its growing threat, citing that: 

6500 launches have taken place; 15,700 satellites are currently in orbit (of which 8,300 are operational); there are 37,000 objects in space larger than 10 cm, 750,000 objects larger than 1cm, and 130,000,000 objects smaller than 1 cm. This presents a problem, as even a millimetre sized object can lead to severe damage or even the loss of a spacecraft. 

Collisions with space debris are becoming more likely in each of the earth’s orbits, particularly Low Earth Orbit (LEO) which contains 85% of space traffic (with the other orbits being Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), and Geostationary Orbit (GEO)). 

Private companies are increasingly launching satellites, which exponentially grow space traffic, and small pieces of debris moving at 50,000km/hour can act as bullets hitting satellites when they collide. This leads to the Kessler Effect, which is a cascading chain of collision that creates more debris. 

What can be done to mitigate the growing amount of space debris and collisions?

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First, ESA performs Collision Avoidance measures to protect its assets (which must done much more often than in the past years,  on average, around twice a month). Second, using complex maneuvering, LEO satellites reaching the end of their life need to be brought back to earth (satellites may now stay in space for 25 years after the end of the satellite’s life but ESA is committed to bring back its satellites as soon as possible and ideally immediately after the end of their life). Lastly, for satellites in GEO, it is possible to re-orbit satellites in graveyard orbits beyond the outer GEO where collisions are far less likely to take place. 

In 2009, the question was raised regarding the environmental footprint of a space launch, prompting ESA to examine the environmental impact made by the total space mission. The total life cycle of space missions was studied and led to the creation of a broader Clean Space Initiative.

Clean Space Initiative which aims for zero space debris, and for the reduction of space missions' environmental impact, takes into consideration the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) which evaluates the environmental impacts of the entire life cycle of space missions, eco-design of products used, and Environmental Regulation (such as UN guidelines for space sustainability). 

The three main components of the LCA include launch, space, and ground issues, such as the impact of testing, R&D, physical infrastructure, and data management. The eco-design roadmap was established in 2012, with the goal of much “greener” products being used by 2030, and progress is being made in small increments. Regarding environmental regulations, the United States has set the limit of five years for post-mission disposal of space items, but ESA is now aiming for zero years (i.e., satellites are to be caught and de-orbiting technology used to return them to earth). Of course these are very complicated problems to solve. 

The Director General of ESA, Josef Aschbacher, stated the following: 

“In ESA we are implementing a policy that by 2030, we have a net zero pollution strategy for objects in space, by consistently and reliably removing them from valuable orbits around Earth immediately after they cease operations. We need to lead by example here.” 

Several CEOs of space companies have committed to be part of this movement with ESA. The Zero Debris Charter was established by this group, and it was published in November, 2023 with the signature ceremony set for June, 2024. 

ESA is not a legislative body. The EU, however, is currently working on an EU Space law to address some of these issues.

Photo credits to ESA

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